State Assembly and Parliament Elections in A.P. – HRF Press Release

April 30, 2019

Press Release

The Human Rights Forum (HRF) expresses concern and dismay at the manner in which elections took place recently to the State Assembly and Parliament in Andhra Pradesh. What we witnessed for over a month was a widespread across-the-board debasement of public discourse. These elections were a mortifying and degrading spectacle. 

Leaving aside for the moment the question whether meaningful citizenship consists of only exercising our franchise periodically and then leaving matters of governance to others, these polls were a highly disquieting affair. Cutting across party lines, we saw politicians indulging in naked opportunism, unprincipled switching of parties, often several times over a few weeks; abandoning even the pretence of mouthing high sounding principles. Frantic games were enacted solely to attain power. For them the entire political process was an instrument of money-making and personal advancement. 

One does not have to search for real issues of importance: atrocities in many forms are unfolding every day, there is entrenched inequality and society is facing grim crisis. However, none of these found place in the campaign, which was reduced to a bizarre game of power at any cost. Notions of fair play and decency were devalued. The electorate expects, and rightly so, that elected representatives will make their daily lives more liveable, that their livelihood needs will be addressed, rights enforced, jobs created and decent health care and education provided.

HRF is of the opinion that voters were deprived of this dignity and therefore could not exercise the freedom to make informed choices. In an electoral democracy, truth is central. What we witnessed during the campaign was a bombardment of propaganda with little basis in fact and in a tightly controlled and trivialised manner.

There were many important, substantive matters of policy and issues of social justice crying for attention and debate; what we had instead was only an excessive focus on candidates’ qualities and imagery. Armed with deep pockets, political parties ran giant marketing campaigns and a vast public relations exercise. Real issues were at best consigned to the margins and often concerns that were most on people’s minds failed to enter into the debate at all.

The brazen and widespread distribution of money, principally by the TDP and YSRCP, was astounding. It was common knowledge that not less than Rs 1000 per voter was handed out with the sum going up to Rs 3000 and even more in some areas. This apparently is going to be the new normal! Quite apart from the mockery this makes of election rules, what is the source of the mind-boggling sums of money?

Most candidates have un-edifying track records with political careers steeped in corruption and criminality. Several have reputations of being openly in contempt of the law. During the campaign they obliterated all norms of decency and indulged in despicable and reckless rhetoric disregarding all sense of responsibility and sobriety. 

Needless to say, the role of the media in providing accurate and ethical journalism is vital. However, the immoral depths to which media sank during the recent elections was truly staggering. Rather than report critically, large parts of the Press had virtually become cheerleaders for candidates and political parties. Even hard empirical facts were given bizarre twists to tailor them to a convenient narrative. In effect, people’s trust and confidence in mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly has plummeted. HRF believes that this erosion is dangerous in a democracy.

Most print and TV media became unabashed propaganda adjuncts of their preferred political party. They brazenly took sides and their coverage reflected this. A few TV channels in Telugu with their relentless, slavish cacophony would even put the repugnant Republic TV to shame. In fact, the mainstream media has a lot to answer for. It has dragged these elections into the gutters. It was partisan to a fault, sometimes in a virulent manner: peddling garbled, sensationalist tales, outlandish gossip and rumour and shunning any attempt at true journalism.

It preferred drivel to substance and there was little in-depth analysis of important issues. Good reporting was traded for soundbites, frequently passing up reality show material for authentic news and parading falsity as truth. Some journalists made distorted claims, were excessively biased, gave disproportionate space to false assertions and presented information that was often plainly specious. They seemed to possess an allergy to the very idea of truth. Most media houses went about their job without a vestige of intellectual or moral scruple.

The Fourth Estate is one of the foundational stones on which our democracy is built. What the recent polls have shown is that the concerns of the common people has very little space in this important institution whose credibility has eroded considerably. This decimation of values cannot be good for society, particularly to those on the margins, the dispossessed. For the record, there were of course a few honourable voices articulating a sober, objective and issue-based narrative. Overall, they were drowned in a frenzy of endless exaggerations, half-truths and aggressive sugar-coating.

And then there was the newly emergent spectre of ‘data theft’, where sensitive private information of lakhs of citizens was leaked to IT companies which in turn used data analytic tools to profile voters based on both their biographic and psychographic behavioural patterns in order to influence opinion by micro targeting people. All major political parties pursued this unethical profiling. There was also rampant circulation of fake news and bogus surveys were all over social media.

What are we as citizens who take democracy seriously to make of this frightening landscape? HRF believes that this corrosive state of affairs can be remedied only by an increased and sustained commitment to democratic values.

    A Chandrasekhar                                                                    VS Krishna                         

                      (HRF AP&TS Coordination Committee members)

29-4-2019

Visakhapatnam